Afghanistan’s great escape

An Afghan policeman sits next to the entrance of the tunnel that Taliban fighters used to escape from a Kandahar prison on April 25, 2011.</p>

An Afghan policeman sits next to the entrance of the tunnel that Taliban fighters used to escape from a Kandahar prison on April 25, 2011.

KABUL, Afghanistan — There were more than a few red faces in Kandahar Monday morning when the warden of Sarposa prison had to face the media to tell reporters that more than 470 “political prisoners” — shorthand for the Taliban — had disappeared overnight. Not a shot was fired and nobody was hurt as the insurgents escaped through a 1,000-foot long tunnel that had apparently been in the works for months.

In fact, it was several hours before the break was even noticed by the guards at Kandahar’s largest and supposedly harshest prison, a fact that the Taliban lost no time in gloating over.

“The operation (to free the detainees) ended at 3:30 a.m., but the enemy did not realize it until the sun came up,” wrote Taliban spokesman Qari Yusuf Ahmadi, in a carefully prepared statement on the break. “Our surveillance crews said that four hours after the operation they still saw no movement around the prison.”

The Taliban are claiming that they freed 541 detainees, of whom 106 were commanders. According to government sources, 475 prisoners escaped, 474 “politicals” and one criminal.

This is the second time that Kandahar’s Sarposa prison has witnessed the mass release of insurgents. In 2008, Taliban fighters drove a car packed with explosives into the front gate, followed by dozens of fighters on motorbikes and at least two suicide bombers. Guards and other officials were killed, and more than 1,000 prisoners fled, including more than 300 Taliban fighters.

But this time, all was quiet as the detainees made their escape. According to both the Taliban and the Kandahar governor, Tooryalai Weesa, the guards were far from vigilant as hundreds of Taliban prisoners, some injured, weak or elderly, made their way to safety over several hours.

“The security forces failed in their duty,” said Weesa, during a morning press conference. He added that massive operations were underway to recapture the escapees.

“Some of the escaped prisoners have been recaptured by the security forces during search operations and huge operations have been launched inside and on the outskirts of Kandahar City for the rest of them,” he said.

Weesa added that the security forces had biometric data on all the escaped prisoners, making it easy for security forces to identify them.

But they will have to catch them first.

According to the Taliban’s Ahmadi, they are long gone. And if the precision of the escape is anything to judge by, he could well be right.

“According to the program, the evacuation of detainees began at 11 p.m.,” he said. “Only three of the mujaheddin inside the prison knew of this operation, and they went cell to cell waking everybody up, and directing them towards the tunnel … The last detainee left at 3:30 a.m. … There were vehicles waiting outside to the west of the prison, and all the mujaheddin were sent to safe places.”

Noor-ul-haq Ulumi, a former Afghan Army general, as well as a former governor of Kandahar and a former member of Parliament from the province, was scathing in his assessment of Kandahar’s security forces.

“Our government just doesn’t function, from top to bottom,” he said in an interview with GlobalPost. “We have more than 300,000 Afghan National Security Forces active in the country, and this does not include the foreign forces. They failed to discover this plot. The enemy is not big. Those who carry out such plans are a small group. But they are very smart, and very organized, and with very few resources, they achieved something very big. They escaped right under the noses of thousands of Afghan security forces.”

Governor Weesa hopes to enlist the help of the local population in recapturing the escapees. He gave a hotline number that residents could call with information.

But according to Ulumi, Kandaharis have already made their choice, and it was not in favor of the government.

“Look at where the prison is, right by the main road,” he said. “Every day hundreds of people are crossing the area where the tunnel was being dug. And nobody reported a thing to the security forces.”

This, according to Ulumi, is due to the widening gap between the Afghan government and its people, fueled by corruption, inefficiency and broken promises. The government, he said, will wait in vain for cooperation from its citizens in this case.

“People are happy about this escape,” he said. “They say, let them get away from this government.”

Indeed, the general mood in Kandahar seemed to be fairly upbeat on Monday, with many people openly mocking the government and the police.

Local journalists and residents, most of whom did not want to be named, said that rumors of the tunnel had been circulating in Kandahar for the past three months.

“It took them 1,400 trucks full of soil to clear the tunnel,” said one local media professional. “The soil was being sold in the market. Everyone knew where it came from.”

According to the reporter, some families, whose homes lay along the tunnel route, had even evacuated in recent months, afraid of possible fighting.

The ease of the escape has already given rise to rumors that there was government involvement in the break.

“There might be hands behind this operation,” Ulumi said. “This was not planned yesterday. It was months in the making.”

Ulumi would not be more explicit, but over the past few weeks Afghanistan has experienced a rash of assassinations and attacks perpetrated either by security forces infiltrators or imposters.

Last week a man in an Afghan Army uniform penetrated the ministry of defense, gaining access to the minister’s offices and killing at least three people before being shot by guards.

In Jalalabad, in eastern Afghanistan, another suicide attacker in an Army uniform killed five foreign and four Afghan troops in mid-April.

Just over a week ago, a suicide bomber in a police uniform killed Kandahar’s own police chief.

The Taliban have openly boasted that they have dozens more infiltrators ready to carry our operations. The Afghan defense ministry, however, dismisses such claims, saying that the attackers were all imposters, not genuine officers.

So it may be no surprise that many people’s minds jumped immediately to police or other government involvement.

“I hope there was government involvement,” said one Kandahar resident. “If the Taliban did this on their own then we are really in trouble. If we had proper management at the prison, 500 flies could not escape without the guards’ noticing, let alone 500 Taliban.”

But judging by the social media active in Kandahar, some people in the area are uneasy about the possible consequences of the prison break. There has been fierce fighting in Kandahar for years now as the foreign forces have attempted to clear out the main areas surrounding the city — Panjwayi, Zheray, and Arghandab. The latter was a lush oasis of orchards and gardens amid the desert-like landscape of the province. Much of it now lies in ruins.

“The last prison break had a heavy impact on Kandahar — two years of insecurity and fighting,” wrote one blogger, posting on an independent website out of Kandahar. “Arghandab was burned down. And those ‘political prisoners’ joined the enemy ranks, so what will happen now? These wounded and tortured snakes have flames of revenge inside their breasts, and God knows how much Kandahari blood will be shed by these people.”

Felix Kuehn, an author and researcher living in Kandahar, voiced similar concerns.

“(The prison break) could have possible implications for Arghandab,” he said. “Last time, in 2008, the release of prisoners had a major effect on local security.”

Ulumi scoffs at such fears. The erstwhile general, who recently lost his bid for re-election to parliament in what many insist was a rigged election, is bitter about what he sees as the deficiencies of the local government in Kandahar, which is dominated by Ahmad Wali Karzai, the brother of the Afghan president.

“Kandahar is not a province, it’s a Bastille,” he said. “It has a warden at the top who manages everything in the system. It makes no difference if people are inside the small prison, or outside in the bigger one. No difference at all. And as for these Taliban escapees, the most they will do is go to another province, or a different country. It does not matter at all.”